Let’s get one thing straight before I tell you the tortuous tale of how a couple of pencil-thin identical twins from Rhode Island saved a women’s cross country season at Abilene Christian University: there is only a 50-50 chance I’ll get right who said what. In other words, far more likely than it ever was that they’d be here competing for first place in the first place.
When I interviewed Alexandria (Allie) and Michaela (Mickey) Hackett, junior cross country team members from Cranston, R.I., I was only smart enough to make an audio recording of the conversation; not to note which one was talking when, which was a mistake. Because unlike the freckle mark on Mickey’s right cheek (mnemonic device: mark and Mickey begin with m), their voices have no such distinctions.
To hear them tell it, neither did their cross country careers after one season at ACU.
“I wasn’t serious about running,” says (I think!) Allie. “I was just kind of doing it for fun. Our performances weren’t that great.”
In fairness, neither were ACU’s expectations. Former cross country coach Chris Ward, having noticed their times in high school races, emailed the twins to invite them to campus. They’d never heard of Abilene Christian. But, incredibly, this lifelong East Coast family was relatively familiar with West Texas. Allie and Mickey’s aunt, Ellie, had married a Texan and settled in San Angelo nearly a decade ago. The Hacketts began taking annual trips there when Allie and Mickey were 11, having no idea the girls would eventually matriculate just 100 miles away at ACU. During one such pilgrimage, the family detoured to Abilene for an unofficial visit. Though they weren’t offered scholarships, Allie and Mickey fell in love with ACU and decided to leave the cooler climes and cozy confines of Rhode Island for life as an NCAA athlete in the wide open, flat-hot Big Country.
“We kind of had culture shock freshman year,” Allie recalls. “It took awhile for us to get used to it. It was really difficult. We were tired. We visited our aunt and uncle a lot on the weekends.”
In those first few months at ACU, that extended family offered the Hackett twins a pat on the back; from a teammate came a swift kick that landed a little further down. Fellow freshman Diana Garcia-Munoz, a native of Aguascalientes, Mexico, who was on scholarship, performed like it, finishing as ACU’s No. 2 runner that season. And the Hacketts couldn’t help but notice.
“Diana definitely helped me,” Allie says, “because I was just chasing her during the runs. I made a decision that I want to be good. I found a new love and passion for it.”
With that old flame rekindled, the Hacketts hit the road and put their home track and field advantage to use in the summer before their sophomore year.
“Living in Rhode Island,” says Mickey, “we could run in the middle of the day because it’s perfect weather. And there are hills, which are better for training.”
Cross country is an eight-week sport that runs from the beginning of the fall semester through the end of October. That schedule demands athletes train on their own and return to school in shape and ready to hit the ground running. In 2014, head coach Keith Barnier could quickly tell the Hacketts had and others hadn’t.
“They saved our season,” Barnier says unequivocally. “As walk-ons, they came back in better shape than some of our scholarship runners, which elevated the whole team’s intensity and expectations. Now they’re propelling us to new heights.”
The 2015 season couldn’t have begun any better. Literally. At the Libby Invitational hosted by McMurry University in Abilene on Sept. 4, the Wildcats scored a perfect 15 points by taking the top five positions and, for good measure, had the next two fastest finishers, too. Garcia-Munoz was first, Allie second and Mickey fourth.
Then Friday, Sept. 18, on ACU’s home turf (Sherrod Residential Park) and facing Texas Tech University and teams from three other schools, Allie broke out in front from the opening gun and never trailed en route to her first collegiate victory. Mickey finished fifth.
Garcia-Munoz, whom the Hacketts credit with inspiring them to improve, has seen the favor returned.
“They make me better,” claims Garcia-Munoz, the 2014 Southland Conference Women’s Cross Country Student-Athlete of the Year. “Allie made a huge improvement last year. This year, it’s been Mickey. I see how hard they work as walk-ons, and I know I have to work at least that hard.”
The Hacketts are working hard, on and off of their feet. Their renewed commitment to running last season meant tightening up their schedules. Up each morning to train at 5:30 sharp, bed by 9 p.m. (or 9:30 if they’re at their part-time job at the ACU Calling Center). Each is getting a double major in accounting and finance and on track in the College of Business Administration’s five-year program to earn a Master of Accountancy degree. Like the sport in which Allie and Mickey compete, theirs is a daily routine built on self-discipline that somehow elicits in them a most unusual feeling.
“It’s fun,” Allie says, “because we’re enjoying track now.”
Almost any activity is more fun when you’re good at it. ACU’s women’s cross country team is good this year and has a chance to get better.
“We want to keep going,” Mickey says, “because we know the potential we have.”
“We have two new freshmen, Carnley (Graham) and Aubrey (Till), and they’re definitely up there helping us out,” adds Allie. “We’ve improved and Diana’s obviously improved, and she’s right with us. We’re all in a pack.”
Unlike most ACU teams during this four-year transition period into Division I, cross country can compete for the Southland Conference championship because the winners in those sports do not automatically advance to the NCAA playoffs. That gives the Hacketts and their Wildcat pack something significant to shoot for.
With confidence rising at an inverse proportion to their race times, the sisters believe the team will improve on its seventh and fifth place finishes at the last two conference championships, respectively. Will they go as far as to predict victory? For once, these twins who frequently finish each other’s sentences, don’t have identical answers.
Allie: “We can definitely be top three.”
Mickey (in a smiling whisper): “We can win!”
Allie: “We don’t want to jinx it!”
Mickey: “We can win!”
Allie: “I think we have a shot.”
Mickey: “We’re gonna do it!”
Wherever the Wildcats finish, they will be better because of what the Hacketts have brought to the team. Garcia-Munoz rightfully remains the face of ACU women’s cross country. But if you look a little more closely at the program’s face – around the right cheek – you can tell that Allie and Mickey are making their mark.